ORONO — Out of the trunk of her Subaru, a Vietnamese woman sells egg rolls and noodles. Steam from the warm food condensates in the plastic containers. It’s February, it’s cold, but it’s sunny enough to keep producers and customers coming.
And that’s why Bich NGA Burill of Orono is here. Clad in peacoat and head and neck warmer she greets her customers with the same smile she does in the summer or any time of year for that matter. A shopper buys the two of the pre-prepared meals and four egg rolls.
“You’re here hell or high water,” the customer says.
Burill raises her fists to the sunny winter air glittering with snow taken up by a gust of wind. “I’m not afraid!” she says.
The parking area around Burill’s vehicle is filled with 20 trucks and cars, with the back doors open to customers wrapped in scarves and mittens. People are smiling. People are laughing.
The Orono Winter Farmers Market in held in the Pine Street parking lot (behind Pat’s Pizza) the second and fourth Saturday of each month, 9 a.m. to noon, December through April. An offshoot of the summer farmers market begun in Orono 19 years ago, the winter market began monthly around 2006; the actual start date is debated between longtime attendees. I
In 2008 the market changed to twice a month with the help of lobster vendors, Caty and Perley Frazier of the Lobster Shack. In the cold months around 70 customers visit the winter market.
More foods such as freshly baked bread are available at the winter market, as well as staples like eggs, pork, cheeses, and prepared meals like Burill’s. “You can’t really get this kind of food anywhere else,” said Marley Rosen of Acton, Mass., a UMaine student.
Although there are many producers around age 30 and there are some college students in attendance, the winter market is frequented largely by seasoned veterans. Jim Freyenhagen of Union has sold maple syrup at the Orono summer market since 1996. At age 73, Freyenhagen finds the Orono market to be the strongest.
“There’s a very good following of local people, a pretty loyal bunch of customers,” he said.
For Bill Neville of Tangled Oak Farm in Pittsfield, personal sustainability is part of the reason he’s a farmer in the first place. In 2004, he lived in a condo with a long commute and a white-collar job. One day, he gave it all up became a pork, beef, and vegetable farmer and started Tangled Oak Farm.
Nine years later, he’s still happy he made a change. “Absolutely, every single day,” he said.
For Don and Kelley Jones of Orono, 15-year customers of the farmers market, the payoff for helping farmers is worth the money. “In reality, it’s pretty close [in cost]. You’re getting a higher value and higher quality [product] in my book,” Don said.
Kelley Jones has not bought meat in a grocery store in 10 years. “As much as we are carnivores, we don’t support [industrial] company farms, and I don’t have to,” she said. Buying farm shares changes her and her husband’s roles from “passive consumer” to “active co-producer,” which allows farm shareholders to help slow-food farmers collectively.
The winter market, although not as robust as the summer, provides more than just food; it provides promises, including farm shares. When their fall yields run out, many farmers sell the latest in producer-consumer relationships. As part of community-supported agriculture, clients buy a stake in the farm and redeem their share throughout the year in the winter and summer farmers markets.
The benefit? Farmers get the money up front to help them buy seeds and get through winter. Consumers also get 5 percent to 15 percent bonuses depending on the size of their share. It’s a win-win, giving farmers the up-front guaranteed income they need and providing consumers with flexibility by allowing them to buy more food some weeks than others.
It’s a symbiotic relationship that exists all year round, no matter what the temperature.
“It’s no great thing, being outside,” said Hanne Tierney of Cornerstone Pork Farm in Palmyra. “We’re farmers, we work outside, whether we’re here or not.”